Yosh Nijman 'earned' first NFL start for Packers

Undrafted left tackle rewarded trust of coaching staff built from strong preseason

T Yosh Nijman

GREEN BAY – The decision to go with Yosh Nijman at left tackle for an injured Elgton Jenkins on Sunday night in San Francisco had a couple of layers.

For one, with Jenkins early in the week still having a chance to start, Head Coach Matt LaFleur wasn't too keen on moving Billy Turner from right tackle to left tackle during practice, only to possibly move him back to right tackle for the game if Jenkins' ankle would allow him to play.

But the other reason was the greater factor.

"I also think Yosh earned it," LaFleur said Monday. "Shoot, he had a really good preseason and he did it against good competition."

Indeed, Nijman held up against the starting defensive linemen from both the Jets and Bills in August, and that gave the coaching staff confidence. Still, it was an awfully daunting assignment to give a young left tackle his first NFL start on the road against a premier pass rusher like the 49ers' Nick Bosa.

Nijman, the former undrafted prospect from Virginia Tech now in his third year in Green Bay, wasn't left to go one-on-one with Bosa all night. He got help in the form of chip blocks from tight end Robert Tonyan and running back Aaron Jones, while several of the pass concepts the Packers employed were predicated on Aaron Rodgers releasing the ball right away.

But Nijman also had to hold his own on plenty of occasions, and by night's end, Bosa had just four tackles and a QB hit on the stat sheet.

"It took him a second or so, I'd say, to settle in, but we were getting the ball out early, very quickly," LaFleur said. "Once he settled in, I thought he did a really nice job."

Nijman also didn't get rattled by a facemask penalty on the game's opening drive that pushed the offense out of the red zone and forced the Packers to settle for a field goal. He adjusted his technique and kept plugging away.

Similarly, rookie right guard Royce Newman recovered from allowing an early sack to Arik Armstead, while rookie center Josh Myers shook off a mistimed shotgun snap that led to a costly failed fourth-and-1.

For an offensive line that was four-fifths neophytes – Nijman, Newman, Myers and left guard Jon Runyan had a combined five NFL starts to their names heading into the game – the ability to move on from early mistakes and reach a solid, reliable performance level in a tough road environment was as impressive as it was necessary.

"Yeah, that speaks to the resiliency, the don't-flinch mentality that we try to talk about quite a bit," LaFleur said. "Those guys did a great job.

"That's part of the game of football. No matter what position you play, there's going to be moments where it doesn't go your way, and you've got to be able to rebound and move on to the next play, really both good and bad."

Close call: Soaring across from kicker Mason Crosby's right, 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson came within an eyelash of blocking the game-winning 51-yard field goal, but LaFleur didn't fault the protection for the near-miss. He simply credited Johnson for an incredibly athletic play.

Tonyan was Green Bay's wing blocker on that side, and Johnson darted around him before launching himself headlong in front of Crosby. LaFleur said Tonyan's responsibility is to seal the inside first, because the vast majority of blocked kicks come from inside pressure.

"It was pretty close," LaFleur said, able to smile about it Monday. "I thought Bobby did as well as he could have done on the edge. (Number) 27 for them just got a really good jump on the snap and he made it close.

"We talk all the time about protecting from inside out. So our guys were stout inside and the guy got a really good jump on it and thankfully he missed it."

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